Poliomyelitis (polio) is a serious viral infection. It can damage the muscles and nerves. It can also be fatal.
At this time, it is very rare in the Western world. This is due to vaccination.
Polio is caused by a certain virus. It is spreads from contact with:
- Someone else who has it
- Infected saliva or stool
- Contaminated water or sewage
The virus enters the body through the mouth. It travels into the bowels. It grows and spreads quickly. The virus can also travel through the blood and lymph. From there, it can attack and damage parts of the nervous system. This can lead to loss of muscle control and paralysis.
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The risks for polio are:
- Never having the vaccine—or not finishing the series
- Traveling to places where the infection is still common, such as:
- Parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East
Some people may not have symptoms. In others, it may cause:
- Sore throat
- Sore muscles
- Back or neck pain and stiffness
If the nervous system is involved, it may cause:
- Muscle weakness
- Loose or floppy muscles
- Breathing problems
- Urinary problems
- Inability to move one or both sides of the body
Some people have postpolio syndrome years after the first infection.
The doctor will ask about your symptoms, and health and travel history. A physical exam will be done. Tests may be done to look for infection. They may be:
- Swabs of the throat or rectum
- Stool testing
- Blood tests
- Lumbar puncture to test the fluid around the brain and spinal cord
The goal of treatment is to ease symptoms and lower the risk of problems. It may involve:
- Medicines to ease pain and fever
- Breathing support with a ventilator
- Physical therapy—to help movement and muscle strength
The best way to prevent polio is with a vaccine. A booster vaccine may be needed for those who have a high risk. This includes people traveling to places where polio is common.
Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics
World Health Organization
Alberta Health Services
Public Health Agency of Canada
Polio eradication. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/polio. . Accessed February 5, 2021.
Poliomyelitis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/poliomyelitis Accessed February 2021.
Poliomyelitis. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/infectious-diseases/enteroviruses/poliomyelitis. Accessed February 2021.
Poliomyelitis (polio). World Health Organization website. Available at: http://www.who.int/topics/poliomyelitis/en. Accessed February 2021.
Vashishtha VM, Kamath S. A brief history of vaccines against polio. Indian Pediatr. 2016; 7;53 Suppl 1:S20-S27.
Last reviewed September 2020 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP Last Updated: 2/5/2021